THE appalling video footage that emerged from South Africa last week showing white policemen urging snarling dogs to attack and savage black men would cause an indignant outcry in most parts of the world. Such incidents of racist police brutality have occurred before and been captured on film, most notably in the United States. On each occasion the effects have been the same - a mixture of anger from the public and calls for the perpetrators to be brought to justice, as well as a re-examination of policing methods and supervision.
In South Africa the reaction has been much the same; but in a country hailed as the Rainbow Nation, and one that managed only recently to achieve a relatively peaceful transition from a racist state to a more enlightened, multi-cultural society, the impact is more profoundly disturbing.
Six years after the end of apartheid, the film has touched a raw nerve among thousands of South Africans and revealed what many probably preferred to ignore - that racial hate still lies just beneath the surface of the social landscape.
There is no doubt that the video will cause serious racial tension and a sense, especially among blacks, that nothing has really changed. But this would be an incorrect assessment.
Shocking though the images undoubtedly are, they may yet be used to bring about beneficial results.
There appears to be an institutionalised element to violence in South Africa, whether the victims are selected because of their colour or as targets for robbery, rape or random murder. Many people in the country are inured to brutality, simply because they have witnessed so much. Statistics and anecdotes tell part of the story, and in South Africa they tell a terrifying one in which violence is endemic; but it is often only by being confronted with the reality of brutality that these abstract measures can be given meaning and people can begin to demand change.
Racism, and the barbarism it encourages, cannot be wiped away simply by dismantling an evil system. Accepting that many old racist attitudes will persist is one first step to bringing about their death. The other, more fundamental step, is to create a more equitable distribution of opportunity in the country. In order for that to take place, racists, in whatever sector of society they reside, must be made to realise they have no future in a civilised society.